Photo credit:  MIT/Sally Chapman

Drones have really been picking up in their usefulness in 2017, and features that researchers and designers have been working on for years are starting to accumulate in single machines. So far this year, we have seen the first flight of the bio-drone DragonflEye which uses a mini mind control backpack attached to a real-life dragonfly to create a drone that can be flown using remote control or autonomously toward an objective using AI.

We have also seen drone plans from major players in retail including giants like Wal-Mart and Amazon. Amazon has already shown progress with Prime Air and videos of their drone’s first delivery went viral around the time of launch.

Other smaller retailers are also working on drone delivery as well as drones for warehouses, shipping, and more.

One issue when considering drone usage for widespread commercial deliveries as well as uses like rural military reconnaissance or even land surveying is power. Flight can be a power-hungry activity, even among the lightest and smartest drones.

Even more importantly, drones can provide telecommunications in the event of a disaster that shuts down phone and internet, and the ability to remain on-site long-term could make all the difference in a life or death situation.

While power over the air is leaping quickly into reality like something spawned from Nikola Tesla’s diaries, researchers have found another way to keep drones buzzing around for considerably longer than what we’re used to–5 days, to be exact.

And it isn’t what you’d think. Solar power is not currently a consistent enough source to power a drone for extended periods in the wake of winter or smoke coverage or other similar factors that may be present in emergency situations. It also isn’t a tiny, bug-sized drone, either.

Engineers at MIT have created a gas-powered drone with a 24-foot wingspan that can carry 10-20 pounds of communications equipment and still remain in the air for five full days.

The team found that solar power could be problematic in a disaster situation, and that the added weight of extra batteries in case of less-than-ideal conditions could actually lessen the time the drone could remain in the air, which is why they opted for a 5-horsepower gasoline engine.

This glider-like drone can fly at an altitude of 15,000 feet, even while carrying equipment.

The technology behind this large emergency drone may offer hints toward beneficial evolutions of commercial delivery drones and warehouse drones. An ability to stay in the air for long periods may also benefit military members in a variety of ways from reconnaissance to delivering equipment to highly-remote locations. Especially with the addition of artificial intelligence, long-flight drones may usher in a new era of unmanned aerial vehicle travel, and may open up the UAV field to broader uses.

On a different note, solar panels that absorb infrared and near-infrared light may (speculatively) offer a solar solution to long-flight drones in the very near future.


What do you think? What will power drones in five years? Do you think we will see a mix? Let us know in the comments below!